Providing quality support to communities in need is not easy. All too often, an aid agency in a war-torn country may discover that its food deliveries are nourishing more armed fighters than civilians. Or a local development co-op may face an angry community split, with one ethnic group perceiving that another has received preferential treatment.
In cases like these, what has gone wrong? Most likely, we as well-meaning service providers have overlooked the unintended impacts of our actions. In communities that experience tension between social groups, the services that we provide can impact relationships – sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse.
Conflict sensitivity helps us to make sense of these social dynamics by using context analysis to inform our planning. When we strive towards an understanding of the inter-group divisions in the community context where we live or work, then we can also consider how our own actions will affect those divisions. We can adjust our actions to have a better effect on inter-group relationships.
For example, if the development co-op mentioned above became more aware of local ethnic tensions, they might choose to plan their program differently. They might use decision-making processes that promote equitable participation and benefits, to avoid the perceived bias that fuels inter-group tensions. Further, the co-op might even create opportunities for people from different ethnic groups to form bridge-building relationships, and collaborate interdependently towards shared community goals.
My own work has focused extensively on conflict sensitivity, first as a staff advisor with World Vision International, and later as an independent consultant. World Vision case studies and ‘lessons learned’ are found in the publications linked below.
A Shared Future: Local Capacities for Peace in Community Development (edited by Michelle Garred with Mohammed Abu-Nimer, published by World Vision International 2006).
Conflict Sensitivity in Emergencies: Learning from the Asia Tsunami Response (lead author Michelle Garred, published by World Vision International 2007).
I have also partnered with inter-faith agencies in Southeast Asia to test how conflict sensitivity works for religious organizations in multi-faith societies. For more info on this effort, please see ‘Conflict Sensitivity & Faith.’